March 31, 2008

Cuba lifts ban on locals staying in hotels

[Thanks to Ghettodefender for this link]

frobles@MiamiHerald.com

Havana's historic Hotel Nacional in 2006.
FOR THE MIAMI HERALD
Havana's historic Hotel Nacional in 2006.

Cuba's so-called ''tourism apartheid'' -- which has long prohibited locals from staying at hotels -- ends midnight Monday, according to news agencies in Havana.

The move ends a ban that many Cubans had fixated on as a prime example of the inequities and hardships they faced under Fidel Castro's regime. The lifting comes five weeks after Fidel Castro's brother, Raúl, took over the nation's presidency, and just days after he ended the ban on Cubans owning personal mobile phones, computers and household appliances.

But the measure is largely symbolic: a night's stay at a luxury hotel in Cuba can cost more than $200 -- which is just about what the average Cuban earns in a year.

Cubans were prohibited from staying at hotels even if someone else paid the tab.

Reuters news agency reported Monday that now Cubans can also rent cars and go to beaches once restricted to tourists.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a fierce critic of the Castro government, called the lifting of the hotel restrictions ``pathetic.''

''There might be many superficial changes like this hotel maneuver and making DVD players and computers legal, but what the Cuban people want are true changes, like freedom and democracy,'' she said in an e-mail. ''Raúl may make these nominal rather than real changes because most Cubans can't afford hotel stays. ``What a dismal picture that legalizing microwaves and hotel stays are considered reforms,'' she said. ``It's pathetic.''

But those who are pushing for an easing of sanctions on Cuba had a different take on Raúl Castro's reforms. Many experts view Raúl Castro's early decisions as positive steps, even if they do not come with democratic elections and freedom of speech.

''This is a real reform, because it speaks to the desire of Cubans to have more autonomy over their own lives,'' said Sarah Stephens, the director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, an advocacy organization that takes lawmakers on trips to the island. ``It is part of a piece with cellphones and agrarian reforms, and when the Cuban government allows more private decisions, that is something our government should recognize and applaud. It doesn't, but it should.''

Carlos Saladrigas, the co-chairman of the moderate Cuba Study Group, said the lifting of the hotel restriction was ''a very positive move'' by Raúl Castro but noted that without more economic reforms ``the tourist apartheid will shift from a political apartheid to an economic apartheid.''

'None of these measures put food on Cubans' tables,'' he said. ``That's what's really needed.''

Reuters and the Associated Press news agencies interviewed hotel managers who said they were informed that any Cuban with a national ID card could check in starting Monday night.

Like other guests, they will be charged in convertible pesos worth 24 times the regular pesos earned by state employees, the AP reported.

There was no official announcement in state-controlled media on the lifting of the ban on hotel rooms and other tourist services, and word-of-mouth spread slowly through the Cuban capital.

Inside the world-renowned luxurious but somewhat run-down Hotel Nacional, it was business as usual, Havana news outlets reported. Receptionists at several other hotels reported no immediate spike in reservations, the AP said.

Other tourism employees said they had not yet been officially informed of the change.

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